The NFSI Experience: One Week That Can Have A Big Impact on Freshman Success

The National Freshman Success Institute (NFSI) is an immersive, five-day professional learning experience for high school administrators, educators, and staff to build and extend a foundation in Freshman Success work. LaKisha Pittman, an NCS coach who facilitates NFSI, answers some questions about what new participants can expect and what makes the experience so transformative.

What part of the NFSI experience is most surprising or unexpected for participants?

People show up expecting a book full of resources and a program to tell them, in lockstep, what they have to do to improve student experiences and student success. NFSI is not that, and I recognize it causes some questions. One thing that NCS leads with is why we start with an approach, not a curriculum, to Freshman Success work, and the NFSI experience has an intentional way of delving into the work over five days. Soon enough, participants realize that the power [of the experience] is in the individual and the collective. What do I need to do as an individual to support student success?
We aren’t fixing kids, because kids aren’t broken. We aren’t doing things to kids. We’re doing things in service of kids, and so, we really push participants to think about their imperative and their fingerprint. To think about not just the problem but the solution, the importance of teams, and that collective efficacy is what matters most to the success of our young people. I know — and this is year 25 for me in education — we as educators have been sold on programs. A program is easy to implement, but the longevity and the success of that program, it’s not there.
NFSI brings out the humanity in people. We are adults. We are professionals. We are humans. And sometimes those opportunities to do deep reflection are challenging. But what we do really well is hold firm to our imperative, as an organization and as groups of facilitators. So, you’ll hear and see our individual and organizational stance come out in how we facilitate, how we probe with questions, and how we push people to think about their practice. I think that is something that you may not experience in any other space than an NCS space.

There’s a lot of research about Freshman Success that gets unpacked during NFSI. What information do you think has the biggest impact on participants?

The work that we do around adolescent development, specifically where our 14- to 15-year-olds are at mentally, socially, and physically entering our high schools, is really the game changer. High school practitioners do not always learn about the adolescent brain in our teacher prep programs. We are content-specific. And so — and I will say this from my own personal experience of currently having a freshman in high school — you can’t go back to it enough.
When you have your lows with young people, you have to think about where they are developmentally. When I get frustrated with my own young human, I have to remind myself that’s where he is developmentally. I cannot hold him accountable for all these bad decisions. I just have to support him and navigate him through making better decisions. And so, for me, that is what gets at people’s hearts. The research in and of itself around Freshman Success is really intellectual, but if we aren’t touching people’s hearts, we’re doing a disservice to young people. NFSI, through our facilitation, through our engagement with folks, and through the content, we really try to find that balance between the intellectual and the emotional work.

What are some of the biggest “aha” or “light bulb” moments for participants during NFSI?

We try to sprinkle the aha’s throughout. We see a shift in people — hearing them go from saying, ‘Oh, we can never do that’ to ‘What are the small things that we can do in order to have a shift in our practice?’
NFSI is divided into two sessions: one in the summer and one in the fall. We do this very intentionally. We ask educators to learn the work in the summer and then go try some practices out. We have an expectation that they’ll come back for the second session ready to share what they tried, what worked, and what needs improvement. What practices that you heard and learned about from the summer have you tried to implement? What was your data? What did your data say at the start of the year? Where are you now? Educators will share their work with their new peers from across the country. It is really powerful. I don’t know of another learning experience that is bringing people back the way that NCS does throughout the school year. We’ve never had a school come back and not have anything to share. It’s that community accountability piece that really resonates with folks. No one wants to come back empty-handed, and everyone wants to learn from one another.

For someone who is considering attending NFSI for the first time, how would you sum up the experience?

We are coming in hot! We are going to have a great time. We’re going to learn a lot from each other, and we are going to walk away with an imperative that, now that we know better, we have to do better in service to our young people. You’re going to walk away differently than when you walked in. It never fails.
Interested in joining the upcoming National Freshman Success Institute, June 26–28th? Register before May 13th to get the early bird rate. Group rates are also available for teams.